Reaching the lost in 21stC
Chris Hyslop (Highlands and Islands Youth for Christ) writes:
I appreciate the work the Christians Together web site is doing to try to encourage and enhance communication between believers in the north of Scotland, particularly as that can facilitate the coordination of various efforts to reach out to folks who don't yet know Jesus.
We all need to remember that in order to communicate with the people we want to reach we need to speak in their language, and we need to listen more than we speak.
Too many un-churched folks are committed to remaining un-churched because they've been turned off by pushy, religious, moralisers who call themselves Christians, but treat people very differently than Jesus seems to have done. I think Christians Together has a unique, or at least unusual opportunity to help believers in the Highlands & Islands think through and work on what it might look like to understand the people around us well enough to be able to help them see how Jesus is relevant to them where they are right now.
I believe there is almost always a cultural, as well as a spiritual boundary between those who are part of the kingdom of God, and those who aren't yet. Typically church people who are trying to 'do evangelism' make one of two mistakes in addressing the issue of trying to get the gospel message across that cultural boundary.
Go into the world
The first is that we think of evangelism as trying to find a way to get 'those people' into our churches or tent meetings or Bible studies to learn about Jesus. We organize special events with special speakers, or we invite our neighbors to come with us to church. We see that things are different out in the community than they are in the church, and try to invite those from the community to come into our Christian world to catch a glimpse of Jesus.
The problem is this: I can't find anywhere in the New Testament where the onus is placed on those who don't know the Lord to come into the Church to hear about Jesus. Instead, I find instructions for those within the Church to 'Go into all the world', and 'Live such good lives among the pagans that ... they may see your good deeds and glorify God'.
We who know Jesus are specifically commanded to cross the boundary between the churched and unchurched to help those folks to be reconciled to the God who created them and loves them. Instead, whether because we are too comfortable in our Christian sub-culture to be willing to go, or because we are afraid of the possible influence the world might have on us, or maybe just because we haven't thought about it, we tend to stay where we are, safely on our side of the threshold between the Church and the world, and invite them to come to us to hear about Jesus.
Non-believers made to feel unworthy
Those few courageous non-believers have ventured across that threshold into churches or other Christian meetings often feel judged and unworthy because they don't behave as though they belong. They're told their hair is too long or their clothes are too revealing or their language is offensive. In other words, they're shown a number of ways that the cultural values they hold (what's stylish, or fashionable) and the language they use, are bad, and they're pressured, and sometimes even forced to change those outward things in order to stay. Not surprisingly, few stay. And sadly, instead of seeing from this that the way we do evangelism should perhaps change in order to be more effective, we conclude that 'those people' just don't get it, and must be hardhearted.
The second mistake that I think we make in trying to take the gospel from our side of the cultural boundary between the Church and the world over to those who don't yet know Jesus is that when we do 'Go into all the world' we insist on taking along not only our faith and relationship with Jesus (which is great!), but all of our sub-cultural baggage as well.
It isn't that I think Christian sub-cultural values are wrong. In fact, many of them demonstrate a good deal of wisdom and sense. Its just that I think we sometimes forget that not everything about the way we live is exactly the way Jesus says it has to be, not only for us, but for everyone else as well.
Is smoking a 'sin'?
For example, within many Christian groups smoking is frowned on, with varying degrees of disapproval. Some would argue that smoking is just not healthy, while others would suggest that it is poor stewardship of one's body and one's finances, and others would insist that it is sinful. (Personally, I don't smoke because I already have asthma, don't want cancer, and don't like the taste in my mouth when I've tried to smoke. I also don't like it when people who do smoke insensitively insist on smoking and imposing it on me. And I don't know how people can afford to smoke a pack or two of cigarettes each day.)
But as much as I dislike cigarettes and smoking, I can't find a verse of Scripture that clearly identifies smoking as a sin. There are verses that speak about taking care of our bodies, that instruct us to be good stewards, and about not causing others to stumble.
But, if I'm honest, I have to admit that none of them specifically says, "lighting a dried herb on fire which has been cut up and rolled into a paper tube, and inhaling the smoke from the burning thereof is an offense against God's will, character, and /or instructions." And yet I've seen and heard Christians trying to convince un-churched folks that smoking is a sin.
In fact, let me be blunt. I've seen and heard obese Christians lecturing unchurched folks about smoking because it is not taking appropriate care of their bodies. I've seen and heard wealthy North American Christians disapprovingly telling un-churched folks that wasting money on cigarettes is poor stewardship of the money they been entrusted with. And my point here is not primarily that we, as Christians, tend to be a little hypocritical in the way we are much more ready to find fault with the behavior of others than with our own. Rather, it is that we can manage to get into a conversation with a person who doesn't yet know Jesus, and then let it degenerate into either a lecture or an argument about the sinfulness of smoking, or whether or not a person has to be in a church building on a Sunday morning, or any number of other issues that really reflect the cultural preferences and beliefs of certain Christians.
Shouldn't we rather, if and when we find ourselves in a conversation with a person who doesn't yet know Jesus, let them discover by the way we treat them and the things we say that He lives in us? Surely He, who created us and the person with whom we are speaking, must have allowed us to come together for some greater purpose than for us to confirm that person's preconceived notion that people who call themselves Christians are hypocrites who judge everyone around them. And just as surely, He is just as able to unconditionally love and accept that person as He was to unconditionally love and accept us.
Is it not obvious to us that quite a bit of what we do, which we think of as part of who we are and a normal and acceptable part of the way we live is simply an expression of the culture we come from? That it isn't the RIGHT way, but simply one way of living as we learn more about who Jesus is, and what following Him can look like in our lives?
Focus on 'relationship'
The early church, as described in Acts 15, recognized that being a follower of Jesus didn't have to involve coming under the Jewish Law and adopting Jewish cultural traditions. Rather, a relationship with Jesus is available to anyone, regardless of the culture they have been raised in. Instead of pushing our cultural preferences on people under the assumption that our ways are right, we need to work on getting to know Jesus better, learning better to recognize His voice, and letting Him transform our character so that He becomes more obvious in us. And then we need to work on seeing people the way Jesus does, loving them and accepting them just the way they are, and letting His Spirit convict them of the changes He wants them to make as they let Him into their lives.
Scotland's spiritual heritage and life in Christ
There is a rich heritage in Scotland of strong Christian influence and outreach. I believe there are many unchurched folks in Scotland, and particularly in the Highlands and Islands who are interested in God, but seriously turned off by religion.
My hope is that all of us who hope to reach those people will get past our initial defensiveness at possibly being labelled by them, and listen to what those people are saying. I don't want to be religious. I want to know Jesus, and let Him govern every area of my life. But I believe He wants, even more than I do, for that to look like real life and freedom and grace and hope and love. May He help all of us to let go of whatever religious ideas we hang onto that might hinder us in letting Him shape and use us to share with those around us that they can also have life in this amazing God/man Jesus.
Ed footnote: site users/visitors are free to use the "Comment" facility via the button below to respond to Chris's thought-provoking piece.